The regionâ€™s history dates back well to the times of the Celtic Iberians in 3000 BC well before the Romans who landed at Tarragona in 300 BC and moved inland up the River Ebro to set up camps in Rioja some several years later. The locals like to think they stopped because of the wines and gastronomy, but itâ€™s most likely their failure to cross the mountains into the Basque Country thanks to very powerful resistance from the Basques was the real reason. However their arrival in Rioja was to prove important to the industryâ€™s wine business when they introduced a degree of good commercial practices.
Being a target of its neighbours at one time or another [Navarra, AragÃ³n, Castile] Rioja retains close ties to Castile because, as is seen above, it was in Rioja that the Castillian language was first written down. Clearly its loyalty lies more in that direction than towards the others, something still evident today. Before La Rioja became an autonomous region in its own right it was part of Castile, an association that goes back to the unifying of Spain after the marriage of Ferdinand I of AragÃ³n and Queen Isabella of Castile [known as the Catholic Kings] in the 15th century that in turn led to the building of a colossal Empire with seemingly unlimited riches.
Apart from over 60,000 hectares of vines, other prominent crops are cereals, sugar beet, apples and pears along with an abundance of sheep. So the economy is built around agriculture in general and particularly the winemaking industry and its allied products such as oak barrel makers, capsule producers, label printers and agricultural machinery suppliers and engineers and, not least, banking. LogroÃ±o vies with Palma de Mallorca to be Spainâ€™s richest city per capita.
Every town and village has at least one Fiesta a year but amongst the important ones are two related to wine â€“ La Batalla de Vino in Haro at the end of June, where after attending a service at a small chapel in the mountains above Haro, they multitude resort to an increasingly wild party of spraying each other in wine as they walk back to the city to eat and drink through to the early hours. Aficionados buy new white clothes for the event every year. More sedate but hugely enjoyable is San Mateo during the third week in September to celebrate the wine harvest with an orgy of eating and drinking, well what else would one expect.
The Parador in Santo Domingo de la Calzada is an old convent with an excellent restaurant. The tourist invasion of the past 20 years has encouraged the opening of good quality restaurants across the region with a choice of local dishes and / or internationally known menus. Unusually for a red wine region, but not surprisingly for a place so near to the great Bilbao market, they consume a lot of fish; one town of 10,000 people actually has 7 fishmongers!